by Rev. Elijah R. Zehyoue, co-director
On January 6, 2021 a mob of white supremacists attacked the United States Capitol in what seemed like an attempt to overthrow our government. As these events played out in my city, I was experiencing a whirlwind of emotions. I was shocked, disturbed, and horrified by the actual events. And as a resident of a city with no representation in either house of Congress, I felt helpless and neglected. As a Black man, I felt enraged and saddened by the contradictions of my country. I am in and around the Capitol often. Every time I’m there, no matter my business and appearance, I am surveilled and thoroughly inspected. I deal with extensive police scrutiny, metal detectors, and security dogs. All of these precautions, I was taught to believe, were necessary to keep the United States Capitol building one of the safest places in the world. All of these illusions dissipated on January 6th.
After I took a few moments to sit with the gravity of the situation and sort through my own fury of emotions, I tried to make sense of it. As a pastor and a historian, I needed to understand what was happening that day. Eventually, I would be expected to preach and teach about this moment, to offer as we baptists say, “a word.” And so as I tried to understand, I turned to the news outlets and first heard Jake Tapper say on CNN that, “this is not our country.” Moments later a message came from former President Bush saying basically the same thing. Later Brian Williams, Mitch McConnell, and eventually Joe Biden would all say the same thing. They would emphasize that while what we were witnessing was terrible, it wasn’t indicative of who we were as a country. They would highlight that we were better than that. That this really wasn’t us. And for a few weeks I was comforted by their words, especially as I watched the 2020 inauguration. Mike Pence fist bumped Amy Klobuchar, and Roy Blunt complimented the brilliance of Amanda Gorman. I began to believe that perhaps they were right and this really wasn’t us, and that perhaps those thousands of people who had tried to overthrow the government weeks earlier were an aberration from the American spirit. I thought maybe I was wrong to be so mad and disappointed. I even began questioning if in my thirteen years as a student and scholar of history and my 30 plus years as a Black man in America, I had gotten something wrong about the spirit of my country. But just as I was beginning to explore that thought in my head, news postings and images began to surface from January 6th. We saw pictures of insurrectionists smiling after a quick release and read reports of how some were allowed to leave the country and go on vacation. We saw images of the Kenosha shooter being accommodated and read more stories of how conspiracy theorists were being offered the red carpet.
In that moment, I couldn’t help but juxtapose those images and reports with images and reports from the summer of 2020 where my friends were tear gassed, harassed, and brutalized as they protested police brutality and killings of Black people. I couldn’t help but think of summer 2016 when my sister and I were intimidated and lied to by police as we protested the killing of Alton Sterling. I couldn’t help but read those stories against the stories that were told about Mike Brown’s “threatening” body, Sandra Bland’s “arrogance,” Rachel Jeantel’s “hostility,” and the “danger” that 12-year-old Tamir Rice posed. I couldn’t help but place those images next to images of Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbury, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Renisha McBride. I couldn’t help but think of how black groups like the Black Panther Party, the Deacons of Self Defense, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Nation of Islam were all heavily surveilled, policed, and incarcerated. I couldn’t help but think about leaders like Malcolm X and Medgar Edgars who were murdered before 40, leaders like Jimmy Lee Jackson who was murdered before 30, and Fred Hampton who was dead by his 21st birthday. I couldn’t help but think of all the black folx in prison and jail and under state supervision or dead from police brutality. I couldn’t help but think of Michelle Alexander’s prediction that one in three Black men, in our lifetimes, will be imprisoned. I coudn’t help but think about Emmitt Till and Addie Mae Collins; I couldn’t help but think of the more than 3000 lynching victims that Bryan Stevenson has tried to honor, that Billie Holiday tried to sing about, that Ida B. Wells-Barnett tried to write about, that W.E.B. Dubois tried to produce scholarship on, that Carter G. Woodson tried to remember on Negro History Week, that the NAACP was formed to protect, that Black colleges sought to educate, and Black churches sought to comfort and free. I couldn’t help but think about what Ira Berlin called the many thousands gone and the 2.5 million people Micheal Gomez said were lost in the death canal of the middle passage. I couldn’t help but think about what Vincent Harding described as the river of Black struggle; I couldn’t help but think about those four centuries of slave trade and enslavement, of those tens of thousands of boats traveling across the Atlantic, stealing at least 12.5 million people from their African homelands. I couldn’t help but think about how Nat Turner was killed for his insurrection against slavery. How Gabriel was killed for his insurrection against slavery. How Denmark was killed for his insurrection against slavery. How thousands of unknown Blacks were killed for their daily resistance and insurrections against institutions that fundamentally distorted their humanity or undermined the God-given truth that they were made in the image of God. I couldn’t help but think about all the Black people that have been terrorized for their simple request to be treated as a full person and how this group of white folx who tried to overthrow the government waltzed into freedom the day after as though nothing happened. I couldn’t help but think about the fact that when we read American history, especially through the perspective of Black people, we see that the true history of this country is one of violence, terror, rage, white supremacy, and a fundamental contradiction along racial lines.
See, when we look carefully and read between the lines, a Black perspective of American history teaches us that all of the beatings, tortures, harassments, and deaths that Black people have endured, for as bad as they are and as much as they teach us about the resilience and spiritual depth of Black people, teach us something fundamental about who we are as a country. They teach us that the violence suffered by Black people is a violence suffered at the hands of their country, which is fundamentally violent and hostile towards them. We learn that this violence is historic, essential, and pervasive, and still alive and well today. And if things are to ever change, this violence must be studied, taught, and understood.
In his Pulitzer Prize winning work, Between the World and Me, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates gives us insight into the roots of this violence, the depths of the contradiction of our society, and why it matters how we study it. He does this by centering how Black history was taught to him and how it is still taught today. He writes the following:
Every February my classmates and I were herded into assemblies for a ritual review of the Civil Rights Movement. Our teachers urged us toward the example of freedom marchers, Freedom Riders, and Freedom Summers, and it seemed that the month could not pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera. The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life—love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the fire-hoses that tore their clothes and tumbled them into the streets. They seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, love the children who spat on them, and the terrorists that bombed them. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent?…How could the schools valorize men and women whose values society actively scorned? How could they send us out into the streets of Baltimore, knowing all that they were, and then speak of nonviolence?
At face value, Coates’ words seem as though they are a critique of the Black freedom fighters over the years who have strived for equality through nonviolent direct action. But that’s not really who he is talking about. He is using them as an example of how Black history is taught, especially to Black people, in order to ask a deeper question about violence—epistemological and bodily, power—discursive and political, hegemony—ideological and material. He is wondering, and we as the church must listen into to him as he ponders, the all-important question of how American history, seen from the perspective of Black people, points us towards the fundamental contradiction surrounding a very particular American imposition of violence. He continues on this and writes:
Back then all I could do was measure these freedom-lovers by what I knew. Which is to say,…I judged them against the country I knew, which had acquired the land through murder and tamed it under slavery, against the country whose armies fanned out across the world to extend their dominion.
Coates is all important here because he is showing us how the study of Black history reveals the wide gap between Black people and their country. The freedom riders who are lifted up during Black History Month are people whose lives and values are actively scorned. The Study of Black History exposes the fundamental contradiction between what our country believes itself to be and what it actually is—that is fundamentally violent and historically undemocratic towards Black people. Our country was founded on violence. It was expanded through violence. It secures its power today through violence. Violence is the most consistent record of American history. And Black people have been front-row witnesses and center-stage recipients of this violence.
But while this is the overwhelming history of the country, it is not the full story of Black people, nor is it the only option for our society. Black people have their own records and their own visions of what this society could be. In those records are additional moral options and alternative paths which could lead to the liberation of the whole society. In those records are the varied stories of how Black people held onto their humanity as they responded to this persistent violence. In those records we find a myriad of rich intellectual and deep spiritual traditions, which give insight into the legitimate grievances, careful responses, and expansive moral imaginations of Black people. In those records we find that some Black people resisted, others rebelled, many revolted, and there were those that did try to make revolution—violent and nonviolent. In those records we find that some Black people ran away or left, others fought back, and there were those who endured in the hopes of a better future. In those records we find that some Black people prayed, others petitioned, and there were those who protested. In those records we find that some Black people preached, others penned prolific essays, poems, and books, and there were those who contested and challenged their experience of violence in more subtle ways. In those records we see the stories of those who tried to reform the society, those who tried to reconstruct it, and those who called for the creation of something completely new. All of these Black people grappled with the violence of their country and the meaning it had for their lives; thus all of their responses to their social, political, economic, moral, and historic situations are legitimate and worth studying and learning from. Moreover, all of the study of Black history gives us insight into the true character of our country, our churches, our world, and the systems that hold it together. The comprehensive, nuanced, and in-depth study of Black history reveals the violence and contradictions of our society—past and present. Its study is the foundational step of the transformation of our society and the only hope we have for a future together.
In short, Black History Matters. It matters because the Black lives of the past mattered. It matters because Black lives matter today. Black lives of the future matter, too. And the study of those Black lives makes our world and country better, no matter how difficult you might find it. The study of Black history makes us better. The study of Black history will free us all. The study of Black history will save us all. The study of Black history is a mirror into the soul of America. It is a conscience, for a nation that is often without one. It is the moral compass for a society headed in the wrong direction. It is a soil for a deeper imagination to grow. It is the tablet in which the divine might make the vision plain. Its lessons offer a potential way forward, and its shortcomings give us more insight into hope, struggle, grace, and what it means to be human. And this is why our body, the Alliance of Baptists, must devote itself to a bold, consistent, comprehensive and even covenantal engagement with the study of Black history. In a country where Black history is being criminalized and Black people are often rendered invisible, our moral and divine mandate is to allow this history to teach us about our country, our world, our churches, and ourselves so that we can all be better.